|Phyllis Schlafly, the author of First Reader, has her B.A.
from Washington University, her M.A. from Harvard University, her J.D.
from Washington University Law School, and an honorary LL.D. from
Niagara University. Mrs. Schlafly taught her six children to read before
they entered school, and all had outstanding academic careers. Her
best-selling book, Child Abuse in the Classroom, was called
"required reading for every parent" by Hoover Institution
scholar Thomas Sowell. Her nationally syndicated daily radio
commentaries and Saturday call-in radio programs are devoted primarily
to education topics.
The scandal of widespread illiteracy has finally become a topic of
general discussion and debate, from local newspapers to Dan Rather on
the CBS Evening News. Americans are at last being told the tragic fact
that the public schools are failing to teach children how to read. Our
largest and trendiest state forced the facts of illiteracy into the
national news stream. California came in last in national fourth-grade
reading tests, set up a state task force to find out why, held
legislative hearings, discovered that the state's Whole Language method
is a disaster, and earmarked $100 million for new textbooks and teacher
training to switch the schools back to phonics.
In order to receive their share of the money, California schools will
now have to give students "systematic explicit phonics instruction,
with phonemic awareness, sound-symbol relationships, and decoding."
Governor Pete Wilson is even requiring that school districts spend their
federal Goals 2000 money on reading instruction. Wilson's spokesman,
Sean Walsh, was blunt. "Whole Language was an utter failure. Our
curriculum taught to kindergarten to third-graders, quite frankly,
Whole Language teaches children to guess at words by looking at the
pictures on the page, to memorize a few dozen frequently used words, to
skip over words they don't know, to substitute words that seem to fit,
and to predict the words they think will come next. The child who is
taught those bad habits, instead of how to sound out the syllables, will
never be able to read big words or become a good reader.
Many schools give high grades and happy report cards to children who
are good at guessing and memorizing words, so parents don't realize that
their children are being taught to guess instead of to read. Self-esteem
is a higher priority than literacy.
A federal agency called the National Assessment of Educational
Progress (NAEP) publishes what is called the Reading Report Card for the
Nation and the States. Its recently released report on the 1994 test
given to 140,000 students in grades 4, 8 and 12 in public and private
schools proves that schoolchildren's reading skills are not only bad,
but are getting worse. Comparing 1992 and 1994, the NAEP results show a
significant decline in the percentage of students scoring at or above
the "proficient level" and at or above the "basic
level," and a significant increase in the percentage of pupils
performing below the "basic level." The NAEP tests also show a
lack of any positive results from the expensive federal Title I program
for the disadvantaged.
How did it happen that the entire public school system abandoned
phonics and substituted a guessing system? It's rather easy to date and
track the Whole Language system from its official adoption by the state
of California in 1987, because California is a model for other states
that want to be "progressive."
But Whole Language was not a new idea in 1987; it was just a new name
for the system that was already in widespread use called "whole
word" or "look-and-say." The mystery as to how that
stupid system swept the country, starting in the late 1930s, was
revealed in a report aired the first week of June on National Public
"Look-and-say" came to dominate the schools as a result of
a sophisticated marketing plan carried out by Scott Foresman, the
publishers of the Dick and Jane series of elementary school
readers. Scott Foresman sent slick salesmen to every school district to
demonstrate how easily children could be taught to "read" the
inane See Dick run stories that had color illustrations of Dick,
Jane and Spot (the dog) doing whatever the one- syllable words
described. By the 1950s, the Dick and Jane readers were, as Newsweek now
tells us, "ubiquitous." In 1955, Rudolf Flesch's landmark
book, Why Johnny Can't Read, fully exposed the fact that this
system is a cheat on everyone.
The typical first-grader already knows the meaning of thousands of
big words, such as hamburger, basketball, birthday, toothbrush, and even
hippopotamus and Philadelphia. But the child will not be able to read
those words unless he is taught the skill of sounding out the syllables.
That's what we call phonics.
It is encouraging to see that California is making a massive attempt
to abandon the failed Whole Language system and switch to the proven
method of phonics. But changing the educational system today will be
like trying to change the course of an aircraft carrier with a rowboat.
Parents who want to make sure that their children are not handicapped
by the dumbed-down methods used in most public schools today should
assume the task of teaching their own children how to read. It's easy to
do if you use intensive, systematic phonics. I did it with my six
children, and I urge all parents to do likewise with my wonderful system
called First Reader.
An Educator Discovers Phonics
Those who are trying to get the schools to teach phonics in the first
grade instead of Whole Language should use as their major tool the 1996
book by Bill Honig called Teaching Our Children to Read. Honig
was State Superintendent of Public Instruction for California,
1983-1993, where he presided over a school system that exemplified all
the failures and abuses we've been complaining about for years. He is no
hero to conservatives or to parents, but he has great credibility among
When he left office two years ago, Honig sincerely set about to find
out why public schoolchildren are not learning how to read. He started
from the reasonable assumption that "the first and foremost job of
elementary school is to teach children to read." His book is just a
straightforward explanation, based on voluminous research and empirical
evidence, of how children can and should be taught to read.
The most important point Honig makes, repeated at least a dozen
times, is that a child absolutely must be "reading beginning books
by mid-first grade." He emphasizes that those who miss out in the
early first grade need "organized intervention" immediately,
because otherwise they "almost never recover."
Reading success depends on the child developing the ability to pick
out the smallest "sound chunks" that make up words. Honig says
that "the amount of time a student is engaged in phonics
instruction is highly predictive of subsequent reading
A Great Debate has been going on for years between the advocates of
phonics (i.e., teaching the child to sound out the syllables of the
English language and put them together like building blocks) and the
advocates of Whole Language (i.e., teaching the child to guess at the
words by looking at the pictures and to substitute words that fit the
context of the story).
Honig exposes the Whole Language myth that the child will learn
"naturally," without explicit instruction in skills, in the
same way that a child learns to talk. He says this false belief has had
the "disastrous" result that 30% to 40% of urban children
can't read at all and more than 50% can't read at their grade level. He
explains that "bad habits of guessing" make learning to read
much more difficult, and these bad habits cannot be remedied by a
sporadic, unsystematic use of phonics. He says that "beginning
readers who rely too heavily on contextual clues, such as pictures or
the connection of other words in the passage, are distracted from
looking at the letters in a word and connecting those letter patterns to
words in their minds." He reminds us that exposure to good
literature "only works if the student actually reads the words
correctly — making mistakes doesn't help."
Honig argues for teaching children to write and to spell accurately
in the first grade, too. "Inventive spelling" shouldn't be
allowed past mid-first grade; children's misspellings should be
corrected so erroneous patterns are not reinforced.
How widespread are wrong teaching methods in public schools today?
Honig says that "very few instructional programs currently in use
provide children with materials designed specifically to connect with
systematic and sequenced skills development. In some cases, state,
county, district, or university leaders are overtly or subtly
antagonistic to the skills components and discourage phonics
This isn't a book for parents. Honig obviously thinks that parents
have no direct role in the mechanics of teaching children to read
because that's the job for the public school. Besides, most parents
won't be able to cope with his endless educrat jargon: phonological
awareness and processing, phonemic segmentation, explicit skill
development strand, word-attack skills, alphabetic principle,
orthographic phase, syntactic awareness, and metacognitional and
But this highfalutin way of talking about phonics is just right for
teachers, administrators and policymakers. It's a road map to get them
back on the track of teaching children how to read, which should be the
schools' number-one mission.
The Sickness of Illiteracy
"Our health care system requires that patients be able to
read." That was the sensational revelation in the December 1995 JAMA
(Journal of the American Medical Association). It reported on the
first study ever made to test literacy using words combined with numbers
that are in common use in health care. It was a cross-sectional research
project conducted at two urban hospitals, one in Georgia, the other in
This new health literacy study specifically measured the ability of
patients to read and understand medical instructions and health care
information according to a test called TOFHLA (Test of Functional Health
Literacy in Adults) and discovered that 33 percent of patients did not
understand instructions for common procedures written at the fourth
grade level. This health literacy study measured the ability of patients
to perform such tasks as reading labels on prescription bottles,
instructions about how often to take medication, notices about when is
the next doctor's appointment, informed consent forms, instructions
about diagnostic tests, and how to complete insurance forms.
The depressing conclusion is that a high percentage of patients
simply can't read well enough to function in our health care system.
People with inadequate literacy skills are unable to read a thermometer,
write down instructions by telephone, or read common medical terms such
as "orally," "teaspoon," and "hours." They
can't access useful messages from newspaper and magazine articles,
educational materials, posters in supermarkets, or billboards about the
importance of screening procedures or flu shots.
Health care standards require hospitals to provide patients with
understandable health instructions, but do not require that the
instructions be understood. Hospitals assume they are complying if they
give patients a readable document, but a written instruction assumes
that the patients can read. Patients who can't read informed consent
forms present doctors and hospitals with what the researchers call
"a troubling ethical issue." Even if an effort is made to
simplify the forms to the sixth grade level, that still will not reach
the many who are functionally illiterate. (The massive National Adult
Literacy Survey made by the U.S. government in 1993 concluded that 40 to
44 million adults are functionally illiterate and that another 50
million are only marginally literate.)
Other new and useful information was discovered by this health
literacy survey. Illiteracy can't be predicted by appearance or years of
schooling. This means that illiteracy is not just a problem for minority
dropouts or recent immigrants, but is a handicap suffered by all races
and classes of people who have no visible signs of disability and have
spent many years in school.
Many illiterates do not realize that they have a problem. They are
like myopic children who don't know that they are simply not seeing
details that others see.
Ronald Reagan tells in his autobiography how, as a young boy riding
in the back seat of an automobile, he picked up someone else's glasses
and tried them on. Suddenly he was able to see the leaves on the trees
and other landscape details for the first time. Until that moment of
revelation, he hadn't known that other children had been seeing so many
things that he did not see. The predicament of illiterates is similar.
Never having been able to communicate with the printed word, they have
no comprehension of the vast world from which they are excluded.
Even more prevalent is the pervasive problem of shame. People with
limited literacy skills try to hide their inability to read. The large
majority of illiterates describe themselves as reading and writing
"well" or "very well." The health literacy study
shows that, among patients with low literacy skills, 67.2 percent have
never told their spouse, 53.4 percent have never told their own
children, and 19 percent have never told anyone at all.
Patients' noncompliance with their medical instructions has been
generally assumed by physicians and hospitals to be caused by poor
motivation or different personal values. This study calls for a
reevaluation of patients who have been labelled
"uncooperative"; it is more likely that doctors and hospital
personnel, to whom reading is as natural as breathing, never imagined
that the patients just couldn't read their instructions.
The JAMA article recognizes that illiteracy is not a disease
and solution cannot be medicalized. Since doctors and hospitals can't
provide the solution, and the schools have obviously failed in the task,
parents will have to take on the responsibility of teaching their
children how to read.
Whatever Happened to Competition?
When it comes to the Olympic Games, everyone seems to understand that
competition produces the winners and the record-breakers. It's unlikely
that the athletes could reach such heights of achievement and endurance
if they were not competing against other athletes who are closely
matched in skills and putting forth their very best.
Some people, however, are at war against the whole concept of
competition. They think it is undemocratic, unfair, and elitist. It's a
sign of the times that, in Cecil County, Maryland, basketball is now
played by some very unusual rules. If one basketball team is ten points
ahead of the other, additional baskets don't count until the underdog
team catches up. No record is kept of who scores how many baskets, so no
player can ever be recognized as the star of the team.
This system should be called Outcome-Based Basketball because it's
just like the Outcome-Based Education (OBE) that has spread through our
public schools like a contagious disease. OBE is sometimes called
"Self-esteem" is OBE's mantra. Since the lack of
self-esteem is postulated to be the cause of all social ills (crime,
illegal drugs, teenage pregnancies, AIDS, and low SAT scores), OBE's
primary goal is to inculcate self-esteem. There is no evidence that lack
of self- esteem causes those problems, nor is there any evidence that
having self-esteem causes students to score better in academic subjects.
At best, teaching self-esteem is a waste of precious classroom time and,
at worst, it's teaching the wrong lesson that it's okay to feel good
about doing poorly in school.
Self-esteem should be the reward that comes from achievement and hard
work. It should be earned. But lack of evidence doesn't slow down the
self-esteem peddlers because this mantra advances their goal of
eliminating all competition from the school experience.
Outcome-Based Education has been properly labeled a dumbing-down of
public school education — and the most scandalous of all the
dumbing-down is the failure to teach children to read in the first
grade. But OBE is even worse than failing to teach essential skills such
as reading and reducing the amount of knowledge covered.
The combination of OBE and self-esteem eliminates competition as a
learning mechanism. This destroys the students' incentive to be the best
they can be, and it destroys the school's accountability because parents
have no way to measure what their children are doing.
In an OBE school, the traditional A, B, C, D and F are replaced by
letters that are meaningless in terms of specific academic achievement,
such as S for Satisfactory (sometimes it just means Sometimes) or G for
Growth. William Glasser's 1969 book Schools Without Failure led
the charge against traditional grades. Glasser also argued that giving
homework is unfair and elitist because A and B students usually do their
homework, whereas poor students don't, thus widening the gap between
those who succeed and those who fail in school. He even opposed
objective tests because they require students to give correct answers,
in contrast to tests that ask questions for which there are no right
The anti-competition movement is galloping across America. Schools
are getting rid of their honor roll, honors courses, class rankings,
academic prizes, and even valedictorians. Spelling bees are out. In
fact, even correct spelling is out; it's replaced by inventive spelling
(so students can spell words any way they want).
Ability grouping, or tracking, is forbidden as elitist, undemocratic,
or even racist. Pity the poor teacher who has to present a single course
of study to eighth graders whose reading ability ranges from the second
to the twelfth grades. This problem is getting worse with the
mainstreaming of the learning disabled.
OBE does not allow any student to progress faster or farther than the
slowest child in the class. This system conceals the fact that some
children aren't learning much of anything. What is the teacher to do
with the faster learners after they complete the assigned material? They
are required to do peer tutoring (trying to tutor the slower pupils) or
"horizontal enrichment." The former is a frustration for all
students, and the latter is just busywork.
Cooperative Learning, in which students receive a group grade, is
another means of concealing who does the assignment accurately and who
goofs off. The brighter students soon learn that their effort is not
rewarded, and the slower students learn that there's no reason to try
because someone will give them the answers.
The testing system has been corrupted. Not only do all students score
"above average" (a marvel of statistical fakery), but many
tests are peppered with questions that ask for non-objective responses
about feelings, attitudes or predictions, or which have a built-in bias
toward Political Correctness. The response to the dramatic decline in
SAT scores over the last two decades has resulted, not in toughening the
curriculum, but in raising every student's score 100 points, so now
students get perfect scores even if they have some wrong answers. This
is one more way of concealing the distinction between average and
Competition needs to be restored if schools are to prepare students
for life. Children should learn early that life is competition, and the
rewards go to those who work hard, persevere and achieve.